- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 13, 2009

LAHORE, Pakistan | Suicide bombers attacked a mosque and a religious school within minutes Friday in two Pakistani cities, leaving one of the country’s most prominent anti-Taliban clerics dead in what authorities called a targeted killing.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for either blast, but relatives of Sarfraz Naeemi said he had received death threats recently after condemning suicide attacks as un-Islamic and the Taliban as murderers.

Pakistan has been rocked by a wave of bombings and other attacks in recent weeks blamed on militants taking revenge for a military operation against the Taliban in the Swat Valley region. More than 100 people have been killed since May 27, and places of worship have been targeted three times in the past week.

The government has vowed to rid the country of militants, and it has been emboldened by broad support for the Swat campaign from a public that has started openly denouncing the militants after years of ambivalence.

After the blast that killed Mr. Naeemi, hundreds of outraged seminary students gathered at the scene and demanded the Taliban leave Pakistan. “Down with the Taliban!” they shouted.

The campaign has intensified pressure on the militants in strongholds they have established in the religiously ultraconservative northwest on the border with Afghanistan.

Police official Sohail Sukhera said at least one assailant entered the offices of the Jamia Naeemia seminary in the heart of Lahore shortly after the end of traditional Friday prayers and detonated a bomb powerful enough to collapse the building. Five people died and three were wounded.

Mr. Naeemi was the apparent target of the attack and died on his way to a hospital, said his son, Waqar.

Mr. Naeemi had recently led dozens of moderate clerics in meetings and lectures in which he denounced suicide attacks - a common tactic of Pakistan’s Islamic militant groups - and supported the military’s operation to oust the Taliban from Swat.

A leading moderate, he advocated equal access to education for women and the use of computers in schools - ideas sharply at odds with the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of Islam.

Mr. Naeemi’s brother Mohammad Tajwar said the cleric had recently received death threats but had refused the offer of police protection.

In the second attack around the same time Friday, a pickup truck loaded with explosives was rammed into the wall of a mosque in an area where soldiers live in Noshehra, a small city in the northwest, police official Aziz Khan said. At least four people died and more than 100 were wounded, he said.

Fierce fighting continued in Swat on Friday, the military said, where troops captured Chuprial town in a major battle that killed 39 militants and 8 soldiers. It was the highest death toll in a single day’s fighting in the offensive, which began in late April and which the army says it is close to winning.

Elsewhere Friday, gunmen in Peshawar attacked the home of Lt. Gen. Masood Aslam, the army commander of the Swat offensive, leaving him uninjured but two militants dead; and military jets began bombarding suspected militant strongholds in the tribal region of Bajaur.

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